Monday, February 8, 2010

Is the United Methodist Church Macy’s or eBay?

“Small is the new big. Mind you, big is still big… Big Box stores such as Home Depot continue to drive mom-and-pop hardware shops out of business. Even small churches are being turned to condos thanks to the rise of megachurches.” (Jarvis, pg. 55)

I bet that the small churches that are turning into condos are members of the mainline denominations. Yet, as of 2000, there are roughly 6.5 million United Methodists across the United States and most of those members are scattered into small churches. On the other hand, a non-denominational megachurch may well have 8,000 people attending that one church. Some megachurches, such as Mars Hill churches in the Seattle area have started many satellite churches throughout the area (one wants to ask if this is the start of a new denomination?), yet that still is only a coalition of 30,000 people connected to each other instead of the millions of United Methodists.

Jarvis suggests that eBay’s 2007 sales figures of $59.4 million is an example of “small,” because each of those sales figures originate from individual sellers. (The corporation that owns Macy’s sold less than half of that the same year.) Yet an individual seller would not have had the same market opportunities nor would a buyer would have the same guarantee of safety, had not they made their transaction through eBay. Sure, this is an example of a “small is the new big,” because the individual generates the product and the sales, but it is still an example of how being big gives you advantages.

To me this suggests that the importance of the rule “Small is the New Big” is as much a matter of perception as it is numerical reality. Big is old fashioned, slow to change, and disempowering to the individual. Yet, being physically big is good, as long you feel small. Here, small is a measure of how much an individual is empowered to make their own goods and services readily available to others and profit from that networking. This is why not all bigs are created equal – and I would happen to agree. The internet age does privilege those gigantic connections, such as eBay, that empowers and connects.

Yet, right now, the mainline denominations resemble Macy’s more than eBay. Yes, we do have an enormous amount of sales, but how much does this feel like prepackaged goods? How much does the individual feel like they can offer their own goods and services into this connection and benefit from using the denomination as a resource? Do we feel big: monolithic and slow to change, despite our small churches; or do we feel small: letting individuals feel like they are empowered to offer their own personalities and services because of that connection? Perhaps the reason that megachurches have been so successful is the ability for an individual to feel like they have access and attention within this large structure; perhaps the megachurches just don’t feel that big.

The United Methodist Church is both small and big. I think the lesson that I’m going to learn from this is to examine size not so much in terms of numbers, but in terms of perceptions. It doesn’t matter how big we are, it matters how small we feel.

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